And with a week to election day, the last of the set-piece hustings was staged at The Wreck at the Fairfield Halls last night. KEN TOWL, pictured right, went along, so that you wouldn’t have to…
So what did we learn?
First, that anyone, other than the most partisan supporters of Farah London, Gavin Palmer and “His Excellency Dr” Winston McKenzie, would have been convinced that these three makeweights were wasting their own and the audience’s time and that DEMOC had been right not to invite them to their hustings three weeks ago.
That may sound harsh. I will explain.
On entering the debating chamber, prospective voters discovered a leaflet for Farah London, the Taking the Initiative Party, on every seat. In addition, next to the platform was a six-foot high image of Farah’s face. None of the other candidates had taken the initiative to break the rules in this way.
After a few minutes, the illegal hoarding was removed and a chastened London took the platform to join the other candidates.
London’s newbie credentials were shown up later when, during questions from the floor, aspiring “Local Conservative™” council candidate for Addington North, Michael Castle, took her to task for having recently described all Conservatives as corrupt. Although she literally had a platform from which to backtrack, apologise or provide evidence for this possible defamation, she did none of these, choosing merely to parrot inanities about Croydon deserving better.
London did not say much. She did an impression of a mediocre candidate for head girl, insisting, as if we did not know, that the choice of Mayor was in the hands of us, the voters.
I learned a little more, however, from her tactically placed leaflets. The agricultural policy that had previously taken up five words was now expanded to an aspiration to “replicate the Dutch model for sustainable agriculture” and an assertion that “Croydon will be a leader in fresh produce production”.
London’s problem was that she stumbled over the presentation of the half-formed ideas in her cut-and-paste manifesto. She mentioned the farming but did not explain it. She asked us “consciously” for our votes, and said she would “open the books so that even you would have access to them”. Even us, we unworthy minions?
I know this is not what she meant but it is what she said, and a politician ought to make some attempt to align the two. When she said that the amount of money spent annually on youth was “in single figures” I gave up. What was it? £9?
And so, from farmer to Palmer. The latter has a high opinion of himself, though one not shared by the “Local Conservatives™”, who chose not to select him as their candidate for Mayor. He is now part of a sulky cabal of right-wing “freedom-loving” fringe parties, a man who has effectively cancelled himself.
“I’ve got lots of talents and attributes,” he said, “I went to Exeter University and I got a 2.1 in Mechanical Engineering.” If the audience gasped in admiration at Palmer’s Upper Second, I did not hear it.
He went on to tell us that he supported Domestos and Sense and Sensibility. I assumed that these were a leading brand of bleach and a novel by Jane Austen, but they appeared to be the beloved code names of Palmer’s pet policies. He did not, however, take the trouble to elucidate. Presumably we were expected to Google for the answers. Dear reader, feel free, and let me know if you find anything.
Alternatively, we can await Palmer’s belated manifesto. It is in imminent danger of publication. At forty-five pages, “It will be,” he promised, “quite tedious.” I suspect he is right about that and further, that were it a mere two pages, it would still be “quite tedious”.
The final makeweight was the honorary “Doctor” McKenzie. He insisted on the nomenclature, twice upbraiding the MC, TV news presenter Faye Barker, for her failure to refer to his honorary doctorates in “Divinity and Humanity”.
McKenzie floundered, out of his depth all evening. His message, essentially, was that, because of his ambassadorial roles, both with the United Nations and with Envirolizer Ltd (a loss-making organic fertilizer company) he could, if elected, bring new inward investment into Croydon.
McKenzie’s claim that “Joining the UN has been the most amazing experience of my life” tested a savvy but polite audience that was working hard to suppress laughter during his oratory perambulation.
If these three candidates were not up to par, the audience was perhaps the star.
Their well-crafted questions gave a revealing glimpse of the people behind the political personae, put the candidates on spot and obliged them to ditch their carefully prepared aphorisms. In fact, the questions generally evoked more applause than the answers.
One such was, “What is your favourite place in Croydon?”
It was a chance to see if any of the candidates had any borough-related cultural hinterland. Peter Underwood, from the Green Party, understandably extolled the virtues of Croydon’s woodlands and green areas, while Labour’s Val Shawcross liked the small-business buzz of the Crystal Palace Triangle, while the jovial and self-deprecating Jason Perry (“Local Conservatives™”) spoke lovingly of Croydon’s Restaurant “Quarter”.
“Food,” he explained, “is my downfall.”
Unfortunately for Perry, Partygate will probably be his downfall. Presented with an open goal in the shadow of Labour’s bankrupting of the council, all his candidates’ literature has the Conservatives branded as “local” in order to try to disassociate them from the Boris Johnson and his cronies in national government.
The answer from Liberal Democrat Rick Howard was insightful. Last time I saw Howard, he came across as stilted, a little afraid to blow his own trumpet. While still humble, he has grown into the role as a candidate. His answer was palpably honest and human. He liked restaurants, he said, but with young children in tow, would not want to impose them on other customers, so he doesn’t get out much. He spoke wistfully, too, of the Addington Hills, and then Croydon’s pubs. “Pubs are great places,” he said, and should be valued as community spaces.
Another interesting question from the floor, given the nature of the Mayoral vote – where we are asked for our first and second preferences – was how each of the candidates would use their second choice. Howard’s second choice would be Independent candidate Andrew Pelling, and he extolled Pelling’s virtues as a competent, honest and experienced politician at almost unseemly length. Such unpolitical and apparently sincere praise was creditable.
When it was Pelling’s turn to answer the question, he suggested that their politics were similar, both progressive and sincere in their wish to improve the borough. It was starting to look like quite a bromance.
Pelling came into his own when criticising the toxicity of the Labour administration, tore into them for their treatment of tenants, the squalor of Regina Road and then the insult of raising rents and the short-sightedness of reducing the Council Tax rebate for those least able to pay.
He also attacked the management of Fairfield Halls – “This place needs to be open!” – and said he would sack five council cabinet members to save money. This last secured his loudest applause.
McKenzie’s answer to the second choice question? He started with “I ain’t voting for nobody,” then, like a magnanimous Lord Alan Sugar, offered, “Reluctantly, it would have to be Andrew Pelling.”
The recipient of this reluctant ambassadorial praise was briefly taken aback. “Thank you. That’s so kind,” said Pelling, no doubt musing on just how many votes such an endorsement had cost him.
As for London, we will never know: “Only God knows,” she said. Neither Perry nor Underwood would deign to suggest that anyone was worthy of their second-choice vote. Shawcross suggested either Green or LibDem and Palmer suggested “any independent”.
Most of their answers were moot, of course.
Very probably, the only second preferences that count are Labour or Conservative, since the two-party system, despite the best-combined efforts of the Labour Council and the Conservative government, is alive and well in Croydon.
At the count in a week’s time, all candidates apart from the top two will be eliminated after first preference votes are counted, and then second preference votes will count only if they are for one of the two remaining candidates.
This was reflected, perhaps in the performances of Shawcross and Perry, arguably the only two candidates with a real chance of taking the Mayoralty. Their delivery was lacklustre, as if their hearts weren’t in it. And who can blame them? They must be tired out, both mentally and physically, after weeks of intensive campaigning, and after weeks of defending (or distancing themselves from) the indefensible.
Frankly, you wouldn’t want to be in either of their places right now.
Shawcross and Perry both know that what happened in the Fairfield Halls on Thursday was of little real import in the scheme of things. When the audience were asked if they had made up their minds who they would vote for, nearly all of them had. It turns out that the don’t-knows are not the people who turn out at hustings meetings.
What have we learned?
That while three of the candidates are not ready for public office, the other five – Rick Howard, Andrew Pelling, Jason Perry, Val Shawcross and Peter Underwood – probably could do the job well enough. Certainly better than any supposedly strong leader we have had until the council went bust.
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